Back in 1996, it seemed so unlikely that of all the action heroes in Hong Kong, Donnie Yen would be the one called on to foil Satan’s foul schemes. But now it makes a strange kind of sense that Donnie Yen would, well, not so much punch the Devil in his face as knee the Devil’s Envoy repeatedly in the ribs and once in the jaw, because here we are and Donnie Yen is the state-sponsored inheritor of Bruce Lee’s sifu and nunchaku. Who else is left?
You’re probably wondering if Donnie Yen uses a mixed martial arts philosophy to prevent the End Times. You might even be wondering whether Donnie Yen is pre- or post- Millennial in his understanding of the Rapture. But Satan Returns isn’t really a Donnie Yen movie, certainly not in the way Donnie Yen has been presenting himself in the last five or ten years. There is nary an open shirt, motorcycle jacket or MMA throwdown in sight. It is kind of like a current Donnie Yen film in that director Ah Lun doesn’t show the action in a continuous shot, but it’s less frenetic action cuts and more like Ah Lun suddenly realized he should be shooting just as Donnie Yen finishes kicking a guy.
Satan Returns is a Wong Jing film written for his favorite actress, Chingmy Yau. It’s actually a pretty good role for Chingmy Yau. Before she stopped making films in 1999, Yau starred in a lot of Wong Jing films, many had some variation of “Rape” and “Angel” in the title. In fact, according to the HKMDb, her last film was, Raped By An Angel 4: Raper’s Union. (Which I have never seen, what with my presumption that there would be raping, but I wonder about it. Do scabs get beat up by union rapists? What are the dues?). With no rape, and very little nudity, Satan Returns is mild in comparison to the angel/rape films. Chingmy Yau doesn’t really play the pretty girl and the camera — and the comic relief — don’t leer at her breasts the entire film. So she gets to act.
Satan Returns was written by Wong Jing and certainly looks to have been directed by Wong Jing, despite the credits claiming someone named “Ah Lun” did. In fact, the only reason I have to doubt Wong Jing directed it is the relative dearth of booby shots. There is a lot of side boob and some frontal, but the film seems charmingly bashful about the crucified and de-hearted ladies, especially in comparison to European movies where a crucified lady is a chance for full frontal. Besides a focus on breasts, Wong Jing is notorious for making films on the cheap with very little concern with coherence or narrative, a lot of embarrassing comic relief (breast jokes, rape jokes and dressing up as ethnic minorities) and using whatever is cinematically in style — in this case, Tsui Hark canted shots, blue filters, foggers and billowing plastic and white sheets. He also borrows from other films, here Seven, Silence of the Lambs and maybe Angel Heart.
Satan Returns also sporadically uses the patented Raimi cam — the low budget but eerily fast camera used so effectively in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. It’s hard for me to get too upset about Wong Jing stealing pieces of other films for his own because he loses interest so fast — even the Raimi cam is desultory. I forgive Reservoir Dogs and The Departed for their “homages” to City on Fire and Infernal Affairs because they are good. I forgive Wong Jing because his films are not usually good.
In Satan Returns, Wong Jing fuses serial killer and Satanic horror films together into a new genre. But he cuts out any suspense about whether or not Francis Ng’s murderous Satanic Envoy, Judas, is delusional or whether Satan is real. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that Satan is real in this film. Other writers might keep this tension as the heart of the film and reveal in a twist ending that Satan is real and Chingmy Mau’s Chan Shou-Ching is his daughter. But proving once again that of all the Wong Jing’s in the world, he is the Wong Jing-iest, Wong Jing doesn’t have time for that, not when he can have Francis Ng use occult power or — in a truly disturbing performance — argue with Satan in his own body or have Chingmy Yau see her true self revealed, horns and all, in her bedroom mirror.
Chingmy Yau plays Inspector Chan Shou-Ching of Internal Affairs. She is haunted by childhood memories of her father leaving her, as well as current nightmares of a man binding women to a cross and cutting out their hearts. In fact, she even has a double dream fake-out. But it is arguable that the real visitation in her life is her roommate’s boyfriend, Detective Ka-Ming, the film’s painful comic relief. Ching is investigating Donnie Yen’s bespectacled Detective Mo Ti-Nam, aka “The Alchemist,” after she witnesses Mo sticking his gun in a thug’s mouth and pulling the trigger. For his part, Mo is investigating a series of killings in which young women’s hearts are cut out of their chests, while they are still alive. (And leaving their breasts perfectly intact, as a salacious coroner informs the investigating team). The dead bodies are hung on inverted crosses for the police to discover.
Ching doesn’t mention that she’s dreaming about these murders. But having grown up in a Christian monastery, Ching interprets a few “power” symbols for the team and Mo asks for her help on the investigation, since they are still a little unclear on this whole Satan/Christianity thing. This is something I love about Hong Kong films — the exotification of that crazy, complicated, cultish religion, Christianity. Exposition is required for both the police and the audience, so they visit Ching’s old priest, who explains the difference between a cross and an inverted cross. The priest also tells Ching that her father had 666 in an inverted cross on the back of his neck and that this scared the priest so badly that he never told her, which, I suppose, makes up for her not telling anyone about her dreams. Judas creeps everyone out by appearing in the mirror and then disappearing. He especially creeps Ching out because she recognizes him from her dreams. He later completes his creeping her out by manifesting in the police station’s ladies room to the unholy and sinister strains of “Silent Night.”
Francis Ng plays Judas with all the intensity he can muster, distending his throat like a frog full of evil. He lives on a creepy street filled with blue light, fog machine smoke, and running children who are understandably freaked out if they can hear the mix of Buddhist chanting, organ music, synthesizer and sad electric guitar that opens the movie. If they can’t, the old woman burning hell money in the middle of the street, a sign that someone has died on that spot, is probably is enough to get those kids moving. As is the way with so many possessed and/or serial killing characters, Judas is of several minds about his work, and he argues with himself in multiple voices — including that of a very angry kitty. But once he’s on the job, he won’t let anything stop him, whether a nebbishy office worker easily mushed by a truck or a whole police station, brought to a halt by a combination of his knife (a curvy Indonesian kris) and his exploding the station’s Hi-C machine with his Satanic mojo.
Judas’ apartment is dominated by a big neon calendar reminding him that he’s on a schedule. He needs to find the devil’s daughter and cut out her beating heart by or on 6-6-1996. Like the worst kind of absentee father, an apparently regretful Satan only has a couple scraps of information to help Judas find his long lost little girl: she was born on June 6, 1969, and she will not die if her heart is cut out. Sadly, it is way easier to tell that Judas is the Devil’s Envoy because he has a huge 666 tattooed on his wrist. Judas is fortunate that the people of Hong Kong seem a little unclear on the basics of apocalyptic Christianity. But it is unfortunate for a number of women that Satan didn’t think to label his daughter more clearly so he could find her later. It would have been a helluva lot easier for Judas if Satan had tattooed her with 666 on her wrist. Armed only with these two bits of information, Judas hits on the plan of mesmerizing a worker at a credit card call center catering to women. He phones her and she enters a trance and hands over information about clients born on the accursed day.
The police have undercover officers apply for the credit cards and give their birthdays as 6/6/69. One of them, Leon, is contacted by Judas. While she waits to meet him, she eats a red delicious apple — Christian symbolism! Painful comic relief Ka-Ming gawps at Leon’s breasts and doesn’t notice she’s wandered off in thrall to Judas because he’s busy arguing comedically with a fellow officer about whether his passes at Leon are effective during the stakeout. Ka-Ming later loses Ching when he bargains for sex from a customer while he wears dark face make-up and wig to pose as a possibly Southeast Asian street seller. It’s funny because it degrades humankind.
Meanwhile, it’s starting to seem like Ching doesn’t need to be tested because she can hear her father’s voice and see her true self in the mirror. She looks quite cute in horns. And she’s coming into her power. If she tells people to go to Hell, they try to kill themselves. If only she told Ka-Ming to go to hell, but she doesn’t. Instead, she puts on lipstick in a “possessed lady putting on lipstick” scene and tries to seduce him. Yes, he guards her despite getting another officer killed. But, who can stay mad at Ka-Ming? Interrupted by the poor woman dating Ka-Ming, Ching retreats to her bedroom and comes to her senses just in time for Judas to call demanding to speak to her. Ka-Ming refuses, hangs up and calls Mo. Mo, driving, tells him that he knows all about it, and that he had the phone tapped. Also, Judas is calling not just from inside the apartment, but from inside Ching’s room! Inspector Mo bursts in to find them gone, Ka-Ming on the floor, and the mirror smashed with lipstick writing on it.
Eventually, we get to the good part that Wong Jing was working towards. Mo and Ka-Ming get the exposition priest to explain paintings on Judas’ apartment wall illustrating his entire plan. The priest says Satanism is an inversion of Christianity and that since Jesus was crucified on a hill in the daytime, the Devil’s daughter should be crucified and have her heart cut out on a skyscraper during the full moon.
Sure, I’d prefer if there were better reasons for the plot to progress and for scenes to relate to each other. But I decided not to ask questions like, “If Judas had to do a sacrifice by testing the Devil’s daughter on June 6, 1996, then what would happen if he cut the Devil’s dauther’s heart out before then?”; “Why did she need her heart cut out when Satan had already found and talked to her, and she seemed to be taking on her true nature on her own?”; “How does 666 form an inverted cross?”; and, finally, “Who were those alley thugs and, more importantly, why were there flashlights in the sharpened bamboo poles they brandished at the police?” There is no point asking. Wong Jing had some business he wanted to attend to involving undead motorcycle cops, a chainsaw, a nailgun and a lady on a cross surrounded by billowing white sheets on top of a skyscraper.
Satan Returns is not a good movie, but if this film were the basis of Donnie Yen’s current fame and power, I would be fine with it. Because Satan Returns is a great movie if you want to see Donnie Yen chainsaw an undead motorcycle cop’s legs off, empty a nail gun into another undead motorcycle cop, and then nail gun Francis Ng to a cross before igniting him by kicking a flaming Molotov cocktail out of the air. And it’s a great movie if you want to see Chingmy Yau hold her own still-beating heart in her hand.